Prospect Retro: Vladimir Guerrero
Vladimir Guerrero was signed by the Montreal Expos as a free agent from Bani in the Dominican Republic, signed in 1993. He made his debut that summer in the Dominican Summer League, hitting .333/.385/.400 in 34 games for the Expos' entry at age 17. Assigning letter grades to guys in the DSL isn't very meaningful, but he'd already made a name for himself as an intriguing tools prospect.
He moved up to the Gulf Coast League in 1994, hitting .314/.369/.562 in 37 games for the GCL Expos at age 18. Eddie Epstein wrote the first edition of the Minor League Scouting Notebook in '95, and he didn't write about short-season players. But Guerrero's performance didn't go unnoticed. He was named the Number Four prospect in the GCL by Baseball America, behind a second baseman named Sergio Nunez, a pitcher named Scott Elarton, and an outfielder named Andruw Jones. Guerrero's tools stood out, he was developing power, and his plate discipline was adequate. I would give a similar player today a B+ in most cases.
Promoted to Albany in the Sally League in 1995, Vlad hit .333/.383/.544 with 16 homers, 10 triples, and 12 steals. His OPS was a full +37 percent better than league average. He and Andruw Jones roamed the outfields of the Sally League, generating controversy about who was the best prospect. Although Guerrero drew just 30 walks, he struck out a mere 45 times in 421 at-bats. I gave him a Grade A- in the '96 book, ranking him as the Number 19 prospect in the game, which seems low nowadays. The guys who ranked ahead of him, in order:
Jose Valentin the Catcher
At this point in history, all of these guys except Jones and Valentin had played (and played well) at a higher level of pro ball than Vlad had. The worst call is Valentin, who looked like a possible star catcher at that point but never developed beyond where he was in the Midwest League in '95.
Guerrero moved up to West Palm Beach in 1996, where he hit .363 in 20 games and earned a promotion to Double-A. He hit a mere .360/.438/.612 in the Eastern League, boosting his OPS to a superb +42 percent compared to league. He increased his walk rate while keeping his strikeout rate very low. I gave him a Grade A in the 1997 book, rating him as the Number Two prospect in baseball behind Andruw.
Vlad hit .302/.350/.483 at age 21 for the Expos in 1997, and has been one of the two or three best players in the game ever since. His major league performance is very much in line with what you'd expect from his minor league numbers. He always hit for average of course, and his power increased as he matured physically. But the thing that really stood out was the fact that he struck out so seldom, making hard contact even on pitches outside the strike zone.
Comparable Players to Vlad Guerrero:
If he avoids injury as he gets older, Vlad is a certain Hall of Famer. Note that both Belle and Oliva had Hall of Fame talent....Belle won't get in because of his personality problems, and Oliva hasn't gotten in because of his injuries and because his numbers were suppressed by the context of the 1960s. A healthy Oliva would have put up monstrous numbers if he played today.